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Do Primary Candidates' Personalities and Platform Positions Really Matter?


Do primary candidates’ personalities and platform positions really matter? Do you need to carefully consider the difference between a Bernie Sanders and an Elizabeth Warren? Does it matter if you get a Donald Trump or a Mike Pence?

The differences may matter less than you think.

Take Donald Trump – one of the most extreme and idiosyncratic presidents the Republican party has ever generated. What has he actually accomplished during his presidency?

a. He passed a giant tax cut that largely favored the upper classes.

b. He cracked down very hard on immigration with policies being driven heavily by racialized considerations and the protection of his white Anglo core supporters.

c. He dramatically deregulated industry. He particularly gutted environmental regulations and policies which prevented abuses by the financial sector.

d. He increased the representation of conservatives among the nation’s judges.

e. He wreaked havoc on most of the United States’ bilateral and multilateral diplomatic arrangements.

Item e. is different from Items a. through d. However, they illustrate two principles that lower the value of doing deep policy and character assessments of presidential candidates.

1. Most of the policies that Donald Trump passed are policies that would have been implemented by any 2016 Republican President of the United States.

Imagine that Ted Cruz had been elected President in 2016.

Do you think he would have passed a large tax cut that would have favored the rich?

It is likely, he would have!

Would he have toughened America’s policies on immigration?

It is likely, he would have.

Would he have gutted America’s environment and financial regulatory policies?

It is likely, he would have.

Would he have appointed conservatives to empty judgeships including vacant positions on the Supreme Court?

It is likely, he would have.

And so for that matter, would have Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Rick Scott, Orrin Hatch or nearly every Republican senator or governor who was active in 2016.

All of these policies had the solid support of the Republican delegations in the House and the Senate.

All of these policies were replicated in miniature form by the then-in-power Republican governors. (Consider the huge tax cuts and gutting of government expenditure carried out by Sam Brownback in the state of Kansas, or the anti-tax anti-education measures taken by Bruce Rauner in Illinois.)

So as extreme as Trump’s policies appear in the present day, they have been standard issue for the members of his party. If Trump were to resign tomorrow – say to spend more time playing golf or being with Melania – whoever replaced him from the Republican party would probably maintain most of Trump’s policy initiatives.

Thus for most of the issues facing the nation today, it did not matter which Republican candidate got nominated. A Republican candidate is going to maintain a Republican program. If the Democrats had won the Electoral College in 2016, it probably wouldn’t have mattered if Obama had served a third term, if Hillary Clinton had been President or even if Bernie Sanders had been President. Most of the policies that would have been put forward would have been standard run-of-the-mill Democratic policies.

2. Most of Trump’s foreign policy moves have been unexpected and bizarre. However, it is very difficult to predict a candidate’s foreign policies from his or her campaign behavior.

Presidential candidates rarely talk frankly on the campaign trail about their true views about foreign policy. Plus, they are subject to new information and new external situations when they come into office. Thus, what you see is rarely what you get when a primary candidate wins the election, and establishes a foreign policy. Few observers could have possibly predicted Nixon’s opening up to China. Few observers would have predicted Kennedy’s strong escalation of the Vietnam war. Obama talked like a pacifist on the campaign trail; few would have expected his heavy acceleration of proxy war carried out by drones.

Trump’s presidency has been marked by other surprises that could not have been foreseen from the campaign trail. He was a mega-developer in private life – and his companies could have enormously profited from a major infrastructure expansion. He promised gigantic levels of infrastructure construction but then built little. He talked throughout as a social conservative. Yet while continuing to maintain a sustained offensive on transgender issues – he declared an immediate truce on gay marriage.

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So far I have made two points:

1. Differences between candidates in the same party can often be surprisingly minor. Democrats pursue the Democratic agenda. Republicans pursue the Republican agenda. The differences among Democrats and among Republicans are often less significant than the basic differences that divide the parties from each other.

2. Presidential candidates don’t always tell you everything that they intend to do. Some of this is strategic silence designed to win elections. Some of this is accidental rather than strategic. They change their mind once they face the realities of office – once they encounter obstacles and opportunities they never expected.

Here is a third and final point.

3. Legislatures and courts impede presidents from actualizing their plans in their original intended versions. Washington is a political place. Lots of people get a vote. Congress and the Judiciary get a lot of input. Stereotypically, the mass media portrays the Trump Presidency as being centered in the Executive Branch with Congress only having a minor ratifying function. Don’t forget that nearly all of the details of Trump’s tax cut were developed in the House and the Senate in a whirlwind of widely dispersed and highly elaborate micro-negotiations. All sorts of lobbyists got involved. All sorts of lawyers were involved. All sorts of special interests were accommodated. What finally emerged contained some of Trump’s preferences with many, many changes included.

Immigration policy has been similarly constrained. Here it is the courts rather than Congress who have been doing the constraining.

Imagine that Elizabeth Warren were to become president. How likely is it that any of her plans would get through Congress in anything like their current form? It doesn’t matter if those plans are twenty words long and don’t make a whole lot of sense, or they are five hundred and fifty pages long with eight technical appendices and make beautiful sense. Those plans will be amended and amended and amended by every legislator beholden to a special interest. Then the courts will invalidate this part, invalidate that part and invalidate some other part. The major thrust of her policies may get through; they may represent fundamental landmark changes in American governance. But what they look like after they pass will have little relation to the spiffy-looking pdfs presented on the campaign trail.

So what would happen if a Bernie Sanders or an Elizabeth Warren were to get into the White House? If they don’t have a Democratic Congress solidly behind them, the answer might be absolutely zero.

Consider the case of the last two years of the Obama administration. Obama was an idealist. Obama wanted to do great things. He was completely paralyzed by a Congress that was committed to making sure he would do nothing. His biggest accomplishment in those last years might have been declaring December 17 to be Wright Brothers Day. What happened when Obama nominated Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court is particularly worthy of note.

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Watching primaries is great entertainment. It provides a huge event of “political sports” that provides lots of lucrative content for cable news channels. But in many ways, who wins the final contest to represent his or her party in the presidential election might be less consequential than people think.

Winning state legislatures is life and death. This is particularly the case when state legislatures will be controlling the process of both legal and illegal gerrymandering.

Winning governorships is life and death. This is particularly the case when the states will be expected to pick up the social programs and policy initiatives that are being abandoned by the federal government.

Winning the federal House and Senate is life and death. They will be the people “altering the President’s programmes to suit to fit.”

And seeing that your party wins the presidency is life and death. There are huge differences between one party and the other.

Personally, I have a favorite candidate I am supporting for the Democrats in 2020. I hope that candidate wins. (I certainly gave him or her plenty of money.)There are candidates running in the Democratic party who I think are frankly embarrassing and should step down.

But in the end, I am voting a straight party line when I go into the election booth in November 2020.

As for where you should put your time and effort, whether you are Democrat or Republican, never mind the presidential primaries. Find a local candidate in a tight race where a few hundred votes could make all the difference in the world. Do everything you can to get that endangered candidate over the finish line. The rest will play out the way it is going to play out – even if the media restrict their coverage to presidential primaries.

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